By Salim W. Macksoud and Dar Al Handasah
Lebanon, whose devastating civil war—referred to locally as “the troubles”—ended in 1991 with the signing of the Ta’if Accord after 16 years of national strife, is facing an unusually heavy demand for additional water facilities.
This is due to fluctuations in population varying up and down between 3.1 million and 3.9 million from 1990 to 1999, with the latest figure at 3.5 million according to the World Almanac. The instability of these figures reflects and has resulted in changes in social conditions as well as deterioration of infrastructure systems during the troubles, which caused the flight of many of the best minds from the country. The urgency of such demands and limited availability of funds and professionals within the government today has focused more attention on procurement and distribution of water supplies over studies for optimal selection, size and location of the required facilities, as well as monitoring their performance.
The country of Lebanon, which is less than three-quarters the size of Connecticut, is aware this policy cannot be pursued permanently and, particularly for groundwater, a shift toward more focus on institutional development and monitoring aspects must be initiated soon to favor sustainability of resources.
A proposal is being formulated to allow the government to make this shift in its efforts. This is based on adopting a “basin by basin” approach and on making use of existing non-governmental academic research facilities and personnel.
Prevailing groundwater use
Groundwater contributes a significant component to Lebanon’s total water demand. The thousands of government and privately owned wells, distributed all over the country presently furnish about 30-to-40 percent of all water provided for domestic and industrial use as well as irrigation. Furthermore, potential water resources that may be developed eventually through surface storage are estimated at about 540 million cubic meters (mcm) per year, while those likely to be made available by proper management of groundwater aquifers is about 1,500 mcm, according to one report.1 Thus, proper groundwater management is a matter of vital importance to the basic existence of Lebanon—now and in the future.
During the last few years, the government has been under great pressure to meet the demand for rehabilitation of existing systems as well as new ones for newly developed areas. This demand isn’t only due to the destruction and deterioration that took place during years of civil strife, but also to meet the normal increase in demand resulting from population growth and social changes in the newly developed urban areas. Although many parts of the country lost considerable population through emigration, other parts are experiencing a relatively high rate of growth. Further, rain-fed agriculture is gradually losing its attractiveness and this is forcing more farmers to demand irrigation water. With a mountainous terrain, arable land constitutes only 21 percent of the total and agriculture makes up only 4 percent of the gross domestic product.
The government, whose professional and technical staff has been diminished significantly by the strife as well, is hindered by the loss of many vital files and records, as well as equipment. And funds available for rehabilitation are limited as they have to be spread over all sectors of the economy and all regions. Thus, the Ministry of Hydraulic and Electric Resources (MHER) didn’t have time, funds or properly formed professional/technical units to approach the problem of groundwater exploitation as it may have preferred. This was complicated by several delays and shortcuts were taken to come up with the demanded water within the shortest time possible. Few or no spare funds or trained personnel were left for monitoring extraction rates, depth to water, water quality and polluting influences of domestic and industrial wastes on the pumped aquifers.
Fortunately, with chlorination, there’s been no major waterborne spread of disease so far. Only a few minor cases of water-related outbreaks have been reported. But surveys of water sources show considerable source pollution. Thus, an increasing number of citizens as well as several officials worry about how long good fortunes will last.
Impetus for change
Toward the end of 1996, the National Council for Scientific Research established a National Hydrologic Committee. Composed of 12 members—of which two come from the council, four from government water-related departments and six from the universities and private consulting sectors, this committee was formed primarily to coordinate Lebanon’s participation in the UNESCO International Hydrological Program (IHP).
So far, the committee has concentrated on finding ways and means to participate in Theme 3 of the Fifth Phase (1996-2001) of the Groundwater Resources at Risk Survey. Within this, it’s currently developing a proposal for initiation of a program to address some of the issues the committee has been unable to fund.
Presently, MHER has a Groundwater Department established as a result of a 1962-69 water quality study.1 Its staff was originally directed by Lebanese professionals who participated in the earlier study. Concurrently with the department’s establishment, laws were passed to organize drilling of wells and monitor their operation. Unfortunately, these weren’t fully implemented, and whatever data on existing wells collected before the troubles was either destroyed or piled in boxes in damp, dark storage areas, effectively lost. Some senior staff kept personal records from the earlier era. And during the troubles, few records were kept and no monitoring was carried out. Since 1990, records of wells drilled by the government for various water authorities were kept but not in an organized manner. Recently, some effort has been made to enter available information in computer databases—but very little has actually been done. On a private level, no records of wells drilled by the various landowners or developers are available, although the law stipulates a pre-drilling permit is required and extraction rules are to be followed.
The present staff of the Groundwater Department is hardly able to follow up on work associated with drilling urgently required wells for the various water authorities. The technical work is mostly done by assigning private consulting firms to do the design, preparation of tender documents and supervision of drilling and equipping, which is done by private contractors.
The department doesn’t have the requisite time and data to establish, on a scientific basis, which basins are being properly managed and which are in danger. Natural safe yields may possibly be exceeded in many basins. This mining may induce salt water incursion along coastal areas and, subsequently, eventual abandonment of some wells. Also, indiscriminate wastewater discharge may lead to more serious pollution of aquifers. In some cases, artificial recharge may be economically justified. In others, a reduction in the extraction rate must be imposed and/or inter-basin supply conservation measures practiced.
If our level of control over groundwater extraction and waste management practices doesn’t improve, the groundwater aquifers are sure to be endangered. In many cases, this may be irreversible. To improve conditions, we need funds and a revised concept of government operated offices, as far as salaries, selection, promotion, discipline, etc. are needed—or privatization might be considered. The complete privatization of water authorities for both domestic and irrigation water would need to include power to impose restrictions on well drilling and to monitor actual extraction, as well as the right to regulate waste management on all levels. But privatization requires a sociopolitical climate not currently present. It also implies acceptance of full repayment by users of all relevant costs, which need not raise the cost of water but will require restructuring tariffs on both users (including irrigation water users) and pollutants. These are long term aspirations—in the intermediate period, innovations and acceptance of gradual solutions may be the answer.
Basics of proposal
To achieve sustainable groundwater management, location of wells, their capacities and total annual withdrawals must be controlled. Also, all waste disposal practices within the water basin must be subject to regulation. Both of the above require a prior, thorough knowledge of the hydrologic conditions of the basin, allowing determination of safe yield, magnitude and areas of recharge, as well as surface and underground water transfers. Furthermore, effective monitoring of all water extraction and waste disposal activities must be continuously in operation.
This proposal aims to establish a study entity (SE) and a monitoring unit (MU) within the ministry. The SE should be able to gather all required data and make all necessary surveys, analyses and studies to arrive at a true evaluation of groundwater in a basin. This entity will work on one basin at a time, moving on to the next one only when it completes its survey and prepares appropriate guides for the MU to follow-up for proper basin management. The work of this SE will be carried out in phases (see Figure 1).
The SE will consist of a nucleus of full-time government employees. They will be responsible for planning and coordinating the work. They’ll assign specific assignments for designated research study groups selected from the relative departments of universities operating in Lebanon. The full-time staff of the SE should be able to divide the required work into packages that will be assigned to a team consisting of a professor and his/her graduate assistants or students. Results from the various packages related to one basin may in turn be given to another team for integration into a basin-wide study. This will, in turn, allow the SE to establish the operational guidelines for selection of wells and monitoring requirements.
This suggested structure of the SE, contracting out well-integrated components of the overall study for each basin, allows flexibility to operate within budgets of varying magnitude. The only fixed expense is that required for the MU whereas all the supporting study can be varied to suit available funds.
If the basic concepts laid out above are accepted, then the following sequence of actions should be executed: 1) approval by MHER of a detailed proposal to be prepared by the National Hydrologic Committee; 2) provision by MHER of appropriated funds; 3) staff selection (by the ministry); 4) pilot basin selection (based on availability of data and convenience of operation), and 5) implementation of the work plan recommended in the proposal or as amended by MHER and modified by the SE staff.
In that manner, Lebanon can begin to establish an innovative national water program to assure sustainable development of its water resources. Progress toward this, with prospects for sustained political stability in the region, will allow the Middle East country to focus on other issues of its development. Thus, it can look beyond reconstruction from “the troubles” and to building a higher quality of life for its residents.
- The UNDP Groundwater Study, Mission of 1962-69.
About the authors
Salim W. Macksoud and Dar Al-Handasah are with Shair & Partners. The above article was amended from one that appeared in the September/October 1999 issue of Arab World Water, “Country Review: Towards a Sustainable Groundwater Development in Lebanon.” The magazine can be contacted at email: AWW@ChatilaPublishing.com.lb